Oval Talk

Dan who? A tale of two fly-halves

Oval Talk

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Eight days ago New Zealand was a country
practically in mourning when the news broke that Dan Carter had been ruled out
of the World Cup with a groin injury.

Fast forward just over a week and few
would have predicted that the All Blacks would have all but kicked themselves
into the semi-finals.

Sure, they scored two late tries to confirm
the victory, but it was the seven penalties from the boot of Piri Weepu that
really secured victory against Argentina.

Oval Talk wouldn't be rash enough to
suggest that the All Blalcks didn't miss Carter against Los Pumas but maybe it's
not the national disaster that many were predicting.

True, Carter's much maligned replacement
Colin Slade looked nervy and anything but assured during his 30 minutes on the
pitch, but Weepu's kicking was spot on from all areas of the park, the
scrum-half missing just the one conversion from the left wing before being
replaced by Jimmy Cowan.

And Slade's replacement, Aaron Cruden,
looked everything Slade didn't. Sure he only had to make one kick, a conversion
in the 70th minute once the result was already secure, but he made a couple a
fantastic line-breaks and rose to the occasion despite only having a week in
the All Blacks camp.

Assuming that both Slade, who succumbed
to a groin injury in an ironic repetition of fate, and Cruden are both fit next
week, Graham Henry has a big call to make in the first five-eighths.

During the match, Oval Talk overheard
one New Zealander calling for the All Blacks boss to start Weepu at
fly-half and Cowan at scrum-half. OT
suspects that would be far too brave a call for Henry to make, but surely Cruden
has done enough to earn himself a place in the starting line-up next week
against Australia?

Talking of Australia, their tight win
over South Africa was another step in the right direction but next week's clash
against New Zealand will probably be a bridge too far.

Cooper had a shocker and only Will Genia's
impressive performance and a series of

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handling errors from South Africa saved
the Queensland Reds fly-half from costing his side the game. Cooper, so
frequently criticised for his flashy play, could barely catch the ball
while his attempt at defence was, at times, laughable.

When Cooper gets it right he is fantastic to watch and probably
the second best fly-half in the world, but he has endured a torrid
tournament and Robbie Deans's insistence on sticking with him, when they have
an able deputy on the bench in Luke Burgess, has been called into question.

Referee Bryce Lawrence also didn't have
a great game but South Africa only really have themselves to blame for the
loss, the defending champions frequently producing handling errors within 10
metres of the try-line when they looked almost certain to score.

Saturday's semi-finals were no less
exciting... well, one of them was anyway.

Wales produced a scintillating performance
to beat a solid Ireland side and book their place in the semi-finals. Their
best performance in a Rugby World Cup was a third-place finish way back in
1987 when the tournament was last held in New Zealand.

And who would bet against them going one
better this year?

Wales were the form team of this round
of fixtures and come up against a poor French team, who have already come
unstuck against New Zealand and Tonga. Sure, they beat England fairly
comfortably in the end, but that was as much about England playing poorly than
it was about France putting together a performance that could see them reach
the final.

Jonny Wilkinson had 80 minutes to prove
he could still cut it in an England jersey but instead survived until just 25
minutes into the second half before

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he was yanked off the field. The Wilkinson
of 2003 or even 2007 would have pulled England out of the hole they were in at half-time and
orchestrated a comeback.

But instead the Toulon player's performance
was stuttering at best, mirroring England's missed passes, poor kicks
and generally woeful execution.

It would be harsh to suggest just one man
cost England a place in the semi-final (fans of the 2003 champions probably
wish it were that simple) but coach Martin Johnson's loyalty to former
team-mate Wilkinson, while admirable in some respects, is now costing the side
the chance to move on from former glories and rebuild.

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